katherine gobbi networker

Katherine Gobbi GAICD didn’t set out to be the CEO of the large and growing service provider EMLife. She wanted to change the way the insurance industry handled its most difficult claims. Her sincerity, determination and focus have fuelled a successful career and, in 2018, Gobbi received the Emerging Leader in Finance and Corporate Women’s Agenda Leadership Award from online publication Women’s Agenda*.

It’s been a tough decade for the insurance sector. Falling profits, growing expectations from customers and staff, and then the findings of the banking Royal Commission have put enormous pressures on EMLife’s insurance company customers.

The day she took her first job in personal injury claim management, Gobbi knew it was a difficult industry. “A friend who was working as a claims manager said, ‘There are loads of empty desks, it’s really hard and everyone cries. Do you want the job?’ I said yes, applied and got it.”

Over the past four years, Gobbi has built EMLife — a subsidiary of EML Global, where she worked from 2012–2016 — from a startup to a thriving company with offices in Sydney and Melbourne. The provider’s clients are insurance companies, which outsource their claims management to EMLife. Gobbi’s company specialises in the most complex and long-term disabilities, which include mental health illnesses, chronic musculoskeletal injuries — ranging from back injuries to amputations to chronic wrist, hand or shoulder injuries — and chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and heart disease.

It is hard from both sides of the desk. As well as receiving life-changing injuries or illnesses, claimants struggle with widely held suspicion of workers compensation claims. In fact, fraud is rare, according to a 2003 House of Representatives Standing Committee report into workers compensation — Back on the Job. Despite this, the Australian Plaintiff Lawyers Association told the committee: “It is a damning indictment on society that workers when injured not only have to suffer the physical, emotional and financial burden of their injuries, but are also tainted with the suspicion that they are feigning or being fraudulent and carry the stigma of that while on the system.”

Even those who start a claim without a mental illness often end up with one, says Gobbi. “We usually see at least 70 per cent of our customers have a mental health challenge in conjunction with their physical diagnosis.”

Discovering different

Early in her career, one of Gobbi’s clients was a state police and emergency services department. Concerned about their welfare, EML tasked Gobbi with improving their circumstances. All of the claimants were former police officers and firefighters. They were now very sick and had lost their community standing — and often family and collegiate networks.

“Many, most, felt abandoned,” says Gobbi. “I realised unless we changed the dynamic, nothing would improve. So, we started with one aspect: trust. We would try to be that one consistent, positive influence in their life who believes they’re capable of a better life. Maybe not a full recovery, but at least a better life than the one they’re having today.”

It was tough work for the claims managers in Gobbi’s team. Sometimes a win would be as small as getting a return phone call. There was none of the usual talk about surgery or getting back to pre-work duties. The managers celebrated when their customers reported getting out of bed, or walking around the block or to the shops.

Yet as the months passed, some customers recovered beyond their — and other’s — expectations. “Over 18 months, we achieved a 28 per cent improvement in return-to-work outcomes,” says Gobbi. And as her staff chatted over the phone or visited claimants simply to talk about their lives, many others improved, which also helped to reduce costs. What Gobbi discovered, she now calls “the power of human-to-human interaction”. When claims managers’ only agenda is to make their claimants’ life better than it is, insurance companies save money.

Staying supportive

Claims managers have a high turnover — industry-wide, 30 per cent is typical. As EMLife’s turnover began to climb, Gobbi would hire staff out to clients on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. “In the early days of the business, we did some labour hire work because the industry’s always stretched for resources,” she says. “We had great resources and thought, ‘Well, that’s a nice fit.’” However, it didn’t work. Staff started to leave. “They felt disconnected from our culture,” she adds. “We no longer do labour hire because we’re not able to be there and have one of our own leaders looking after our people, their wellbeing.”

Claims management is hard work. Gobbi puts a lot of effort into supporting her staff through a “People Plan”, which includes training in:

  • The skills and capability needed to support people with complex disabilities: technical training, medical training and communication. She retains a full-time communications coach.
  • Wellbeing and resilience, and offering compressed working weeks, support for part-time work, on-staff case manager support counsellors and employee-care representatives, and celebrations of diversity.
  • Engagement to a higher purpose and to support each other as a team, including monthly home office afternoons and weekly “coffee connections” across engagements.
  • A weekly “rhythm”, 30-minute team “huddles” — Monday to set strategy and focus; Wednesday to learn something new; Friday to reflect on progress and teamwork. Good news is collated by leaders and shared in Friday afternoon feedback emails celebrating small or large wins.
  • Leadership to develop people-focused and capable leaders as the first line of support. Leaders have access to up to 15 days of professional development a year.

*AICD is a partner in the Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

Growth and governance

Although Gobbi doesn’t see herself taking any director roles yet, she recently completed director-level corporate governance training. In part, she says, it was to see the world through the eyes of EMLife’s three-member board.

“In business and management, your job is always to minimise the amount of noise that goes up,” she says. “That doesn’t stop at the CEO.”

In part, doing the course was to make sure EMLife governance matched or exceeded that of its clients, the insurance companies struggling to rebuild community trust.

Gobbi works closely with chair Geniere Aplin MAICD, whose support, especially through difficult decisions such as closing the labour hire business, has been essential to Gobbi’s success.

“That [decision] changed our culture overnight from the startup mindset, which is, ‘We’re going to test and learn’, to the ‘You’re now established, and you’re in scale-up, and you’ve learned.’”

Gobbi says the timing was right to do director training. She’d thought about it two years ago. “My mentor at the time said, ‘You are on the fastest-learning trajectory you’ve ever been on in your life. Just keep going.’ Four years in, I’ve been able to step back and see the business more objectively.”

Aplin supported Gobbi returning to live in Melbourne after her marriage to accountant Graeme Anstey. Now expecting a baby, Gobbi will work part-time, one day a week after her maternity leave.

“Geniere’s got a six-year-old, and is from the Gold Coast — she knows what it’s like to be away from your family.”

Aplin and EMLife head of operations Daniel Sayegh will cover Gobbi’s leave.